Seal Numbers Spike

Photos by Richard Bangert    Some 45 harbor seals rest on the float near Alameda’ Breakwater Beach last Thursday. A record 73 seals made the float home on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Herring spawn attracts record numbers to Alameda Point

Alameda Point’s harbor seal population fluctuates between single digits and 50 during most of the year on the specially built harbor seal float. But when the Pacific herring arrive in the winter to lay their eggs, many more seals arrive to feast on them, causing a sudden spike. Last winter, a spike in seal numbers to a record 70 came on Jan. 5, 2017, in the midst of the herring run. This winter, the herring arrived sooner, in December, and so did more harbor seals, causing a spike to a new record of 73 on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

In the brief time span since the new harbor seal float was set in place, local monitors have assumed that it was simply the colder water temperatures that enticed greater numbers of seals to use the float in the winter. But in fact, they discovered that’s not the full story. 

It turns out that dropping water temperature indeed has an effect, but the effect is on the herring. Ideal water temperature for herring spawning is between 50 and 53.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The water temperature at Alameda Point dropped below 54 degrees the afternoon of Dec. 16 and continued dropping another 2.3 degrees, according to data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This brought on the herring run and, in turn, the voracious seals.

“I’m convinced our local herring run began on Dec. 17,” said harbor seal monitor Mark Klein. “That’s the day I heard sea lions barking while I was at the seals’ site.” In the following days, the number of seals on the float grew. The numbers peaked at a record 73 on Dec. 24 and 25. Since then, the numbers have returned to normal. 

“Herring spawning in a given location lasts only for about a week, and is a once-per-year event,” Klein said. 

Not far away from Klein on Dec. 17, Leora Feeney was making bird observations for Golden Gate Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count next to the Alameda Point Channel. She, too, witnessed the beginning of herring spawning.

“There is great evidence that the herring are here, with thousands of gulls, cormorants, and I’d say the most marine mammal activity I’ve ever seen,” said Feeney. “I saw 16 seals on the surface of the water at one time. Really amazing.”

Feeney said that the seals were spy-hopping, slapping tails and watching the people on shore intently. 

“Sea lions were chasing each other and wrapping around each other in what appeared to be courtship or perhaps just happy after a satisfying meal, and some were barking,” she said. 
While the marine mammals go after the fish, birds go after the eggs in a feeding frenzy repeated around the Bay during spawning events. Many of the eggs never find a home on vegetation and rocks and are left floating about. Others become dislodged by currents. 

The number of harbor seals resting on the rock wall breakwater extending into the bay was also unusually high during the herring spawning period. Harbor seals are rarely seen on Breakwater Island, and then only at low tide. On Dec. 17, the number spiked to 27 and reached a record of 37 two days later with a combined total of 99 harbor seals at Alameda Point — 62 on the float and 37 on Breakwater Island. 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) conducts herring surveys beginning in early November. An update posted on its website on Dec. 20 corroborates Klein and Feeney’s observations. “Pacific herring have finally arrived in San Francisco Bay, with two small spawns detected over the last few days — at Ballena Bay in Alameda and at Point Richmond along the outer rock jetty,” notes the website. Alameda is one of the CDFW herring survey sites on San Francisco Bay. The most productive herring spawning occurs on Richardson Bay not far from the Golden Gate Bridge. 

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) built the harbor seal float and delivered it to the harbor in June 2016. They placed it near WETA’s ferry maintenance facility now under construction. A local volunteer group, Alameda Point Harbor Seal Monitors, keeps tabs on the seals. 

The public is encouraged to participate in monitoring. More information and updates are on the group’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/alamedaseals1. The seals can be observed from the Bay Trail, accessible on the road on the west side of the Encinal High School campus that leads to Breakwater Beach.

Richard Bangert posts stories and photos about Alameda Point on his blog at https://alamedapointenviro.com.